Flights

Olga Tokarczuk

Translated by Jennifer Croft

Published 17 May 2017, French paperback with flaps, 424 pages

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YOUR HEAD IN THE WORLD

I studied psychology in a big, gloomy communist city. My department was located in a building that had been the headquarters of an S.S. unit during the war. That part of the city had been built up on the ruins of the ghetto, which you could tell if you took a good look – that whole neighbourhood stood about three feet higher than the rest of the town. Three feet of rubble. I nev­er felt comfortable there; between the new communist buildings and the wretched squares there was always a wind, and the frosty air was particularly bitter, stinging you in the face. Ultimately it was a place that, despite reconstruction, still belonged to the dead. I still have dreams about the building where my classes were – its broad hallways that looked like they’d been carved into stone, smoothed down by people’s feet; the worn edges of the stairs; the handrails polished by people’s hands, traces imprinted in space. Maybe that was why we were haunted by those ghosts.

When we’d put rats in a maze, there was always one whose behaviour would contradict the theory, who couldn’t have cared less about our clever hypotheses. It would stand up on its little hind legs, absolutely indiffer­ent to the reward at the end of our experimental route; disdaining the perks of Pavlovian conditioning, it would simply take one good look at us and then turn around, or turn to an unhurried exploration of the maze. It would look for something in the lateral corridors, trying to attract our attention. It would squeak, disoriented, until the girls would break the rules, remove it from the maze and hold it in their hands.

The muscles of a dead, splayed frog would flex and straighten to the rhythm of electrical pulses, but in a way that had not yet been described in our textbooks – it would gesture to us, its limbs clearly making menacing and mocking signs, thereby contradicting our hallowed faith in the mechanical innocence of physiological reflexes.

Here we were taught that the world could be described, and even explained, by means of simple answers to intel­ligent questions. That in its essence the world was inert and dead, governed by fairly simple laws that needed to be explained and made public – if possible with the aid of diagrams. We were required to do experiments. To formulate hypotheses. To verify. We were inducted into the mysteries of statistics, taught to believe that equipped with such a tool we would be able to perfectly describe all the workings of the world – that ninety per cent is more significant than five.

But if there’s one thing I know now, it’s that anyone looking for order ought to steer clear of psychology al­together. Go for physiology or theology instead, where at least you’ll have solid backing – either in matter or in spirit – instead of psychology’s slippery terrain. The psyche is quite a tenuous object of study.

It turned out it was true what some people said about psychology being a degree you choose not because of the job you want, or out of curiosity or a vocation to help others, but rather for another very simple reason. I think all of us had some sort of deeply hidden defect, al­though we no doubt all gave the impression of intelligent, healthy young people – the defect was masked, skilfully camouflaged during our entrance exams. A ball of taut­ly tangled emotions breaking down, like those strange tumours that turn up sometimes in the human body and that can be seen in any self-respecting museum of pathological anatomy. Although what if our examiners were the same sort of people, who knew exactly what they were doing in selecting us? In that case, we would be their direct heirs. When, in our second year, we dis­cussed the function of defence mechanisms and found that we were humbled by the power of that portion of our psyche, we began to understand that if it weren’t for rationalization, sublimation, denial – all the little tricks we let ourselves perform – if instead we simply saw the world as it was, with nothing to protect us, honestly and courageously, it would break our hearts.

What we learned at university was that we are made up of defences, of shields and armour, that we are cities whose architecture essentially comes down to walls, ramparts, strongholds: bunker states.

Every test, questionnaire, and study we also conduct­ed on each other, so that by the time we got through our third year I had a name for what was wrong with me; it was like discovering my own secret name, the name that summons one to an initiation.

I didn’t exercise the trade for which I’d trained for very long. During one of my expeditions, when I had gotten stuck in a big city with no money and was working as a maid, I started writing a book. It was a story for travel­lers, meant to be read on the train – what I would write for myself to read. A bite-sized snack of a book, that you could swallow whole.

I was able to concentrate and became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer. Life always managed to elude me. I’d only ever find its tracks, the skin it sloughed off. By the time I had determined its lo­cation, it had already gone somewhere else. And all I’d find were signs that it had been there, like those scrawl­ings on the trunks of trees in parks that merely mark a person’s passing presence. In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections – and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain with­in yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bus­tles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passers-by, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.

I don’t regret developing a taste for this odd occupa­tion: I would not have made a good psychologist. I never knew how to explain, how to call forth family photos from the depths of someone’s thoughts. And the con­fessions of others more often than not simply bored me, though it does pain me to admit it. But to be honest, it was often the case that I would have preferred to reverse the relationship and start talking to them about me. I had to watch myself to keep from suddenly grabbing the patient by her sleeve and interrupting her mid-sentence: ‘I can’t believe you! I have a completely different reac­tion! Well, you won’t believe the dream that I just had!’ Or: ‘What do you know about insomnia, sir? And that’s what you call a panic attack? Surely you’re joking. The panic attack I had not too long ago, on the other hand…’

I didn’t know how to listen. I didn’t observe boundar­ies; I’d slip into transference. I didn’t believe in statistics or verifying theories. The postulate of one personality to one person always struck me as overly minimalist. I had a tendency to blur what seemed clear and to question irrefutable arguments – it was a habit I had, a perverse mental yoga, the subtle pleasure of experiencing internal motion. I would examine with suspicion every judge­ment, turn each one over in my mouth, until finally I figured out what I’d expected: not a single one of them was right, they were all fakes, knock-offs. I didn’t want to have set opinions, which were just excess baggage. In de­bates, I’d be on one side one time and the other the next – which I know never endeared me to my interlocutors. I was witness to a strange phenomenon that occurred in my mind: the more I would find arguments for some­thing, the more arguments against it would occur to me, too, and the more I grew attached to those arguments in favour, the more alluring the opposition became.

How was I supposed to analyse others when it was hard enough for me to get through all those tests? Personality diagnostics, surveys, multiple columns of multiple-choice questions all struck me as too hard. I noticed this handicap of mine right away, which is why at university, whenever we were analysing each other for practice, I would give all of my answers at random, whatever happened to occur to me. I’d wind up with the strangest personality profiles – curves on a coordinate axis. ‘Do you believe that the best decision is also the decision that is easiest to change?’ Do I believe? What kind of decision? Change? When? Easiest how? ‘When you walk into a room, do you tend to head for the mid­dle or the edges?’ What room? And when? Is the room empty, or are there plush red couches in it? What about the windows? What kind of view do they have? The book question: would I rather read one than go to a par­ty, or does it also depend on what kind of book it is and what kind of party?

What a methodology! It is tacitly assumed that peo­ple don’t know themselves, but that if you furnish them with questions that are smart enough, they’ll be able to figure themselves out. They pose themselves a ques­tion, and they give themselves an answer. And they’ll inadvertently reveal to themselves that secret they knew nothing of till now.

And there is that other assumption, which is terribly dangerous – that we are constant, and that our reactions can be predicted.

Flights, a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy, is Olga Tokarczuk’s most ambitious to date. It interweaves travel narratives and reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration.  From the seventeenth century, we have the story of the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg. From the eighteenth century, we have the story of a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death. In the nineteenth century, we follow Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw. In the present we have the trials of a wife accompanying her much older husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands, and the harrowing story of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanish on a holiday on a Croatian island. With her signature grace and insight, Olga Tokarczuk guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind.

Flights could almost be an inventory of the ways narrative can serve a writer short of, and beyond, telling a story. The book's prose is a lucid medium in which narrative crystals grow to an ideal size, independent structures not disturbing the balance of the whole… Much of the pleasure of reading Flights comes from the essay clusters embedded between sections of narratives... The cascades of concise interstitial passages are often satisfying riffs on time and space, bodies and language, repetition and uniqueness… Jennifer Croft's translation is exceptionally adventurous…she can give the impression, not of passing on meanings long after the event, but of being the present at the moment when language reached out to thought.’
Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books

‘Olga Tokarczuk is a household name in Poland and one of Europe’s major humanist writers, working here in the continental tradition of the “thinking” or essayistic novel. Flights has echoes of WG Sebald, Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš and Dubravka Ugrešić, but Tokarzcuk inhabits a rebellious, playful register very much her own. ... Flights is a passionate and enchantingly discursive plea for meaningful connectedness, for the acceptance of “fluidity, mobility, illusoriness”. After all, Tokarczuk reminds us, “Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids.” Hotels on the continent would do well to have a copy of Flights on the bedside table. I can think of no better travel companion in these turbulent, fanatical times.’
— Kapka Kassabova, Guardian

‘a profound meditation on time, mythology, the self and human anatomy…  [W]e drift along happily on her flights of fancy, as her travels across space give way to journeys through history and deep into the psyche. Jennifer Croft’s bump-free translation only adds to the reader’s pleasure.’
Chris Moss, Prospect Magazine

‘Tokarczuk examines questions of travel in our increasingly interconnected and fast-moving world. [...]  Trained as a psychologist, Tokarczuk is interested in what connects the human soul and body. It is a leitmotif that, despite the apparent lack of a single plot, tightly weaves the text’s different strands — of fiction, memoir and essay — into a whole. Some chapters are more akin to traditional travel notes: sketches of airport encounters, fellow travellers’ ‘confessions of whole lifetimes’, and other things people often jot down when on a journey. There are also beautiful set pieces, occasionally split into recurring threads. ’
Anna Aslanyan, Spectator

‘The book is a personal, yet universal mythology of travel, a cabinet of curiosities, a box with old tickets, museum leaflets, shells and beer mats collected on the way. What we can touch, whether it is our own body, someone else’s hand in spontaneous dance, a crumbled leaf from a particularly important tree – all those things are imbued with meaning that, in Tokarczuk’s telling, becomes greater than the grand narratives history and politics have been feeding us.’
— Marta Dziurosz, Glasgow Review of Books

‘Tokarczuk’s peerless travel guide is actually a guide to living. Every word, observation, reflection and story embraces the importance of staying mobile in thought as much as in being, resisting what Tokarczuk describes as “that vegetable capacity” for becoming thoughtlessly sedentary. This is as brilliant and life-affirming as literature gets.’
— The Saturday Paper

‘[A] philosophical tale for our frantic times...’
Ken Kalfus, Financial Times

‘A magnificent writer.’
— Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize in Literature laureate 2015

‘One among a very few signal European novelists of the past quarter-century.’
The Economist

‘Reading Flights is like finally hearing from a weird old best friend you lost touch with years ago and assumed was gone forever because people that amazing and inventive just don't last. Wrong – they were off rediscovering the world on your behalf, just as Olga Tokarczuk does.’
— Toby Litt, author of Hospital

‘I have always considered her a person of great literary abilities. With Flights I have my proof. This is one of the most important Polish books I have read for years.’
— Jerzy Sosnowski

Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s best and most beloved authors. In 2015 she received the Brueckepreis and the prestigious annual literary award from Poland's Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, as well as Poland’s highest literary honour, the Nike and the Nike Readers’ Prize. Tokarczuk also received a Nike in 2009 for Flights. She is the author of eight novel, two short story collections and has been translated into a dozen languages. 

Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and her translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in the New York Times, n+1, Electric Literature, The New Republic, BOMB, Guernica, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. She is a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review.